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How to Fail When Using Internal Social Media

By Kevin D. Jones / June 2012

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This article is an edited excerpt from 15 Ways to Fail at Social Business—How companies have failed implementing Enterprise 2.0 and how to avoid their fate, Kevin D. Jones' new ebook, which is available at

Do a quick search online and you can find many ways to use social media for learning the right way. There isn't a shortage of tips, strategies, helpful hints—even conferences and training—that will help you to create thriving internal communities, put together a team of advocates, deal with cultural issues, choose the right tool for your organization, and even develop a job description for community managers.

While all these are valuable, there is one glaringly obvious hole: Not all internal social media initiatives are successful. In fact, many fail. Yet no one talks about them. Why? No one wants to be labeled as "that company," or "hat person" who lead a team to failure.

In the end, these experiences are swept under the rug with the hope that they will be forgotten from the minds of companies and resumes.

But if we were to lift up the carpet and carefully inspect these experiences without defaming company or person, we could find some very valuable insights. As we try to navigate the slippery terrain of social principles, these gems can help us avoid the same fate.

With this in mind, I have looked under those rugs, pulled some skeletons out of the closet, and have found three ways companies fail when trying to implement social learning initiatives. These ways to fail are foundational; they build the basis to allow learning to happen. There are steps beyond this to hit to the heart of learning itself—but that's for another article.

No. 1: If you want to fail, underestimate the power of culture

The company had just installed a social media tool, which would help communication across departments and across the company as a whole. It was met with mixed emotion from employees as well as management. Many did not understand it, but others were eager to start using it.

With the help of the learning manager, the executives were briefed on blogs, wikis, and all the tools to help them communicate with the workforce. He frequently followed up with them so they felt comfortable with the tools.

About the same time the phone system was upgraded. It had new capabilities and features that excited management. Soon after the upgrade, the president started using one of these new features—broadcast voice mail. He would send out bi-weekly updates, which were recordings of his voice. This message was then sent to all employees' voice-mail boxes. Afterwards he followed it up with an email of attachments.

Soon after he did the first one the learning manager asked why he was not using his blog in the collaborative tool. This allowed the president, he argued, to not only attach the files and link to other information, but gave employees an opportunity to ask questions and have anyone answer them—basically creating a discussion where all would learn. In the end the president said he just felt more comfortable with the phone; he had used it for years and he understood the benefits, even though he agreed that the alternative was more effective.

Put an internal project against the culture and the culture will win every time—hands down. Culture is the steering wheel of the company. It is a powerful tide that is difficult to change—but not impossible. Even sub-teams have micro cultures that are just as powerful. You can come up with the best tool, process, or product, which will save millions of dollars, but if it doesn't fit in with the values of the culture of the organization, then there is a good chance it will not be adopted unless targeted intervention is implemented.

In some organizations it almost seems hopeless. How do you get social technologies to become part of a culture that shuns it from the very beginning? When explaining these technologies to your organization it is very possible that you will be vilified. Even to the point where you become the enemy, or worse, a scourge to the organization. Yet at the same time others will cover your back and stand up for you and what you are saying. It is a very odd position to be in.

Like most culture changes, it most likely will take time. Be patient and focus on specific purposes—low hanging fruit and those that will have the greatest company-wide impact.

No. 2: If you want to fail, don't get management on board

A NASA employee saw the need for a social tool to be implemented. After a lot of preparation and campaigning, she was given the approval by management. But what she wasn't given was the encouragement of management, nor funding or a dedicated team. She decided to press forward despite the lack support.

Within a few months, using a free tool and extra programmer time, "Spacebook" was created and launched to the entire agency. She did all the advertising, all the evangelism, and demos to show NASA how the tool could be used. Soon after launch she was contacted by news organizations to tell her story to the world. The news spread and Spacebook won awards.

The problem was that no one was using it. Why? There were numerous reasons, but one of the main reasons was the lack of management support. Without this, the tool soon had political, technical, and usage issues that it could not overcome without their backing. Three years after it was created, NASA decommissioned Spacebook due to lack of use.

Being very simplistic, there are two major approaches you can use to get employees to use the tool. The first way is to create demand from the bottom. Many tools use this mentality to their advantage. Yammer, for example, allows anyone to start a company account for free. Their hope is that once it gains enough following and usage that management will have no other choice than to cave in and purchase the upgraded version. Sometimes this works well, other times it does not.

The second approach is push from the top. OK, push may be the wrong term. But in this scenario management will be on board from the beginning. They will look for ways for their company to use the tools and encourage their direct reports and their organizations to do the same. When issues come up, they will back the team that is behind the tool. They will be the example.

Dell, Inc., is a great example of this. Michael Dell, the CEO and founder of the company is an avid social media tool user. Largely because of his example, the company is on the forefront of how to use social technologies to engage customers. They have an extensive training program for their employees to show them how to use social media to be brand advocates. Once the employee goes through the needed trainings they become certified to use these tools on behalf of Dell. It is an impressive program.

The best approach, however is to use both approaches—from the top and bottom—at the same time. But often the top has a difficult time embracing these changes, and middle management has even a harder time.

Remember how it was mentioned that culture is the steering wheel? Guess who holds their hand firmly on that wheel? Management. Whether they realize it or not, they do. They are the ones that set the tone.

Some executives embrace it, giving the green light for the employees and middle management to embrace it as well. Other executives are dismissive or antagonistic toward the tool. If fear of retribution is high, employees and middle management will largely stay away. Still others are in between the two extremes. They neither promote it nor discourage it. They may use these tools every now and then, but for the most part are inactive. However they don't mind if others use them. Their thought is, "If the employees want to be social, go for it, if they really think it will help them."

In this scenario, only the brave employees adopt the technology. Those who are hesitant don't know whom to follow. "Will I get in trouble if I use the tool? Or is it really OK? Will it look like I am slacking off and wasting time and will it have a negative effect on my future with the company?" These are real concerns. Why? Because they are fighting against the culture that was set by management.

The more executives not only advocate but also adopt the social technology, the more it will be embraced and adopted by the employees. There is a high correlation here. It will be for employees to allow themselves to be involved as well. And not only with the technology, but being open, transparent, and trusting.

No. 3: If you want to fail, expect that employees will just "get it"

"Wow, this is powerful. I want my team to use this," the director said after being shown the tool's capabilities.

"Great. One of the many things we will need to do is training around how to use the tool," the learning manager replied.

"What? This is a social thing, right? We don't need training. They are all on Facebook. Some of them have Twitter accounts. They'll get how to use it. It's simple."

"True, but they will still need training."

"If they need training," the director said, "It isn't simple enough and is too complicated. And I don't want something complicated for my team. But after showing me this, trust me, it's simple enough."

I have heard it many times: "We shouldn't have to help employees 'get it.' This is just like Facebook and they all do this at home. Why aren't they doing it here?" It is an assumption that because this might be labeled "social" that it is just like the social tools we use every day. They may even look like the tools we use at home with our family and friends. So if it looks like it, the thinking goes, they should get how it works. They understand how to share. They understand how to click the buttons and navigate around. So why aren't they using it?

It is because we have asked the wrong questions. What we need to ask here is, "What should they get?" The UI? Sure, but that is secondary. The functionality? Yes, but again, that comes after. After knowing why they should use it and for what purpose.

They may already understand the technical aspects, but what they don't get is how to weave it into the way they work. And it is our job to help them do that.

They don't understand that they are using email too much. Actually, they usually DO understand this, but don't know how to effectively replace it with something else. This may be the something else in many situations.

Remember, what we are doing here is helping people change habits, which is incredibly difficult. Especially when everyone around us has the same habits. It is easy to transition to Facebook with our family when they have all gone there to communicate and post pictures and videos. It is much more difficult to change our habits in an organization when few are doing what we want to do, or there may be a fear of retaliation.

Give them a purpose; help them find their "why." They must have a cause. It can be a simple one and doesn't need to be a grandiose "change the company" purpose. It could be as simple as keeping others more informed of their project, or cutting back on email within a group. Try to be as specific as you can.

The more we can lump their purpose in with a business goal, the better off you will be. Help them find a team purpose. When a whole team is behind a single purpose, they will support each other in the new habit. If not, they may be on their own, going against the grain. This is more difficult, but certainly worth the effort if a team purpose doesn't present itself.

When they understand and agree with the purpose, show them how to replace traditional ways of learning, communication, and collaboration. Without this understanding they will fall into the same old habits.

In the end—and this can't be stressed enough—each person must have their own "why," or multiple purposes, for lasting change. Even if it is dead simple, they just won't pick it up. In fact, if a task is difficult, but there is a burning purpose, an individual will often figure it out.

There are many more ways to fail. Look for them and examine them. Find out why others have failed and learn from their mistakes. This way, you won't be doomed to repeat them.

About the Author

As a social/organization strategist, Kevin D. Jones works with organizations to help a culture embrace new, much more effective ways of working. Together they identify roadblocks to greatness and make it easy for employees to do the right thing while weaving accountability, innovation and learning into their everyday work. Jones is an international speaker focusing on company culture, uses of internal social media, failure, and accountability. He holds a bachelor's in business from the University of Oregon and a master's in instructional and performance technology from Boise State University. His blog and videos can be found at

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/05 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2241156.2241157


  • Sun, 01 Jul 2012
    Post by Ryan Tracey

    Excellent insights, Kevin.

    I recently surveyed drivers of Yammer use in the corporate sector ( and I arrived at similar conclusions.

    The culture of the organisation is key. This is manifested by the intrinsic motivation of the employees to participate in social media, and by the top-down support provided by the managers and the C-suite.

    I'm less inclined to share your views on training, and perhaps "training" is the wrong word. In my micro survey, this factor rated quite poorly; however, "informal support resources" rated much higher. For social media, I suggest the likes of self-paced tutorials, user guides, tip sheets etc hit the mark much closer than, say, classroom-based sessions.

    I whole-heartedly agree that the "why" should be promoted heavily, particularly in practical terms.